- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

If it didn’t turn up this morning under the Christmas tree, the most thoughtful belated gift for anyone fond of Hollywood musicals would be the Warner Home Video set that brings together the trio of “That’s Entertainment!” compilations, supplemented by a fourth disc that incorporates several featurettes and miscellaneous fragments.

The first edition of “That’s Entertainment!” released in May 1974, was envisioned as a 50th-anniversary memory album by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Although a struggling production-distribution company by the end of the 1960s, MGM retained a glittering heritage, especially when it came to songs and dances from cherished musicals.

Obviously, this DVD reunion qualifies as an 80th-anniversary treasure trove of vintage musical spectacle. While still active in the movie business — and represented earlier this year by an actual musical, “De-Lovely” — MGM has drifted for decades from its glory years as an industry leader, not to mention the pre-eminent supplier of upbeat, brilliant or merely grandiose musicals.

That enchanted supremacy began in 1939 with “The Wizard of Oz” and receded soon after the release of “Gigi” in 1958. Musicals remained a dominant commercial genre in the early 1960s, but the biggest originated at other studios: “West Side Story” at United Artists, “My Fair Lady” at Warner Bros., “Mary Poppins” at Walt Disney and “The Sound of Music” at 20th Century Fox.

Metro management became more famous for the ambitious projects that were canceled out of budgetary timidity, notably tributes to Irving Berlin and Busby Berkeley. Mr. Berlin was so offended for so long that it became a delicate matter to secure clearances for his songs while selecting numbers for “That’s Entertainment!” and its “Part II” follow-up, released in May 1976.

The popularity of the initial compilation, which proved far more successful and exploitable than the management had dared to expect, didn’t provide surefire momentum or organizing devices for the sequel. However, the two greatest survivors of Hollywood’s musical heyday, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, were still available as venerable but endearing co-hosts and dance partners in 1976.

The format began to look a bit ragged once it became apparent that they were toiling mainly to announce the next wave of clips. “Part II” had plenty of material that hadn’t been skimmed off for the first movie.

Many selections were still irresistible by definition, notably Bobby Van’s hopping marathon from “Small Town Girl,” but cohesion seemed to be a lurking problem.

The odd thing about the cycle is that its most adept compilation is probably the third, a 70th-anniversary afterthought of 1994, released negligently at best in many markets, including Washington. By that time, it was probably taken for granted that the important audience would be the home-video audience.

Produced by two veteran editors, Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan (who had worked on the earlier collections), “III” has a smoother chronological and star-showcasing sense of the subject matter. It’s as if the partners had put the extra 20 years of reflection and experience to admirable use, blending unused and previously excerpted material in a way that was at once more deft and more informative.

“That’s Entertainment!” had begun with the advent of talkies, of course, but “III” backtracked to this self-evident starting point in a more playful manner. There were highlights from early two-strip Technicolor footage, including the original staging of “Singin’ in the Rain” in “The Hollywood Revue of 1929.”

The suggestive potential in the genre also got some attention, illustrated with a pair of stupefying chorus numbers from an abandoned extravaganza called “The March of Time.” In the first number, the Dodge Sisters lead a cell block of inmates in bare-midriff jammies through a mass tap routine called “Lockstep.” In the second, the studio flirts with the censorship constraints soon to be imposed by ogling an entire dorm of chorines who pretend to bathe until “Clean as a Whistle.”

Within a few years, MGM had perfected a more discreet but still diverting fallback position: Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy doing the operetta backlog.

Value-savvy movie buffs also will be pleased to discover that they’ll be getting two sides for their money on every disc in the collection. After being oblivious to this enhancement for several days, I realized there was a flip side to all three pictures. The A side sticks to a standard aspect ratio, while the B side incorporates the letterbox format when showing numbers that were filmed for widescreen productions. So B is the preferable side for purists.

The fourth disc varies from this pattern. The A side is largely devoted to promotional shows that coincided with the releases of Parts I and II. The B side incorporates a selection of outtakes and deleted numbers. As a rule, the deletions are defensible: Lugubrious love ballads tend to predominate. However, a nice duet, “My Intuition,” was dropped from the early reels of “The Harvey Girls,” along with a genuine collector’s item from the long-forgotten “Sombrero” — Yvonne De Carlo and Vittorio Gassman vamping each other on “You Belong to My Heart.”

Whoever sacrificed this one must have been heartless and humorless.

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